Up next in our series of interviews with notable, in-the-know locals: Chris Jackson, the producing artistic director of Pulse Theatre and director of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which premieres Friday.
Edward Albee’s estate has famously objected to multiracial casting in his plays, but you’ve cast black actors as George and Martha. Talk about that decision.
My casting of the show was honestly happenstance. I cast very audibly: I like to hear the voices of actors and imagine them playing the characters. So I kind of went, “Oh, he’s a Nick. Oh, he’s a George.” It wasn’t my intention to cast with race in mind. I believe that if you’re the best person for the job, you should get the job. And I think the estate specifically objects to interracial marriages, because that would not have been believable for the time period. The playwright has every right to have those wishes.
What drew you to the show as a director?
My biggest selling point was my mother. She’s very much like the character Martha—without the alcoholism, of course. Martha is very brassy, and she goes for everything she wants, just like my mother. That image of a strong woman is fascinating to me, especially in the ’60s, when the play is set.
What makes your production unique?
I prefer a fly-on-the-wall style of directing. I build an organic rehearsal space, and create the show around the natural nuances that come out when we put the show on the floor. For instance, because of the discussions we had in the rehearsal space, our version of the character Honey, in comparison to productions that make her aloof and unaware, is very in tune. She fights to save face and be a trophy wife for Nick. I feel like that’s really different from other productions I’ve seen.
Virginia Woolf was written in the ’60s. Why is it still relevant today?
It’s definitely a Cold War drama. At the time it was written, no one could fathom the idea that the world could be destroyed by other humans. Now, we’re back in the same position: our world can be completely destroyed at the hands of our government. We’re in flux, and it’s very real to us. The characters in the play aren’t moving toward a destination. You don’t really know what happens to them at the end of the play. It’s an allegory for life: life is moving in a direction that you just can’t see.
You’re a cofounder of Pulse Theatre, which is relatively new. How was the company formed?
My cofounder Aaron Mitchell Reese and I were at an audition—I think it was for Les Mis—and we were like, “Where are all the actors of color?” So we called around, and everyone was like, “I’m not going to that one because they’re not going to cast us.” We thought that was crazy. That’s why our company was built: to break that archetype of casting, and to question why these shows are continually put on with the same voices. We want to showcase multiple voices, and that’s what we’ve been doing since our conception.